Brigitte Werneburg: Maria Lassnig, recently at the exhibition The Cult of the Artist in Berlin I was struck by a work by Robert Filliou. It's called Hand Show (1967) and shows the photographed palms of 24 important contemporary artists. There isn't one woman artist's hand among them. I thought I'd take this opportunity to ask you to put your hand in mine, in order to really see and feel the hand of an important woman artist. Would you do me that favor?
Maria Lassnig: Of course. But you know I made animated films and one of them is called Palm Reading? Naturally, I made fun of it. The films will be shown at the MUMOK in February, they're mounting a large solo exhibition of my work.
I'll have to see that film. Unlike palm readers, we seldom pay attention to the physical contact we constantly have with other people or objects. And although we constantly make pictures of all kinds of things, we don't know much about them. You're the artist who first called this to our attention. What impelled you to give a picture to bodily sensations?
That's quite a question! I've been asked that question often and every time I have to rack my brain to remember. But I do remember when it occurred to me the first time, when I got the idea of painting the way I feel at a given moment. It was in my studio in Klagenfurt. I was sitting in a chair and felt it pressing against me. I still have the drawings where I depicted the sensation of sitting. The hardest thing is to really concentrate on the feeling while drawing. Not drawing a rear end because you know what it looks like, but drawing the rear end feeling.
And how you do that? What's the secret behind everyday bodily routines - sitting, standing, lying down?
It's complicated. Because what you feel and the place you feel it constantly changes. I normally sketched an outline of the feeling, a contour. To draw a total abstraction of the feeling is almost impossible. I've started doing it again. I recently arrived at the contour again.
The feeling of bodily mishaps - bumping into something, falling down - you haven't pursued these things in your drawings?
No, the works deal with calm, static postures. That's complicated enough. Anything else is too spectacular, too theatrical. And because I'm not theatrical myself, I know nothing about it. For me, the question of the most comfortable position was of primary importance. I stood in front of the canvas and asked myself the question: how am I standing? And then there was the hand I had to move to the canvas, with the brush. I had stretched-out feelings, or standing feelings. No moving feelings, although people said, "you must have part of the Actionist movement." I was there way before it. I made my first body-awareness drawings in 1948, when Hermann Nitsch was still in his diapers.
When in pain, everyone is aware of his or her body. But when people are just sitting, they don't think about it. You're the only who did. You're the only one who thought about everyday actions in a completely new way.
You know how it all started? I was a very talented drawer by nature, even as a small girl I could portray people. And the same was true at the art academy, I always finished quickly. After that I got bored and started to stare. To stare at a point. I drilled holes in the world and realized how relative what we see actually is. It started with seeing, not with bodily sensations. That was the point that I linked to the world. I've always said: I'm a researcher, not a painter.
In your last paintings there are, surprisingly, couples embracing one another. Is that a new motif in your work?
Yes it is. In my early paintings I always had people across from each other or me across from myself. There's always a distance. But in the new paintings there's something different, I portrayed people. It happened in the country. You know what a sexton is? That's the sexton there and his wife. They've been married for fifteen years and still love each other. That's a big puzzle to me. They stood as models for me. I need the visual, the picture. I'm an eye person, not just a cerebral one.
But earlier, when your figures were isolated or sat across from one another - did that stem from artistic considerations? Or from the fact that you saw yourself as isolated?
You can't really separate the two. But it was partly an artistic issue. Because I was bored, I had them turned away from each other; that was more exciting to see. In art and when I think I quickly find things boring.
Yes, I've noticed how you often talk about boredom in your diary notes. For example, you write, "I can imagine going too far due to boredom (really going, to faraway valleys or countries), not finding your way back, not wanting to." So people are afraid of boredom for good reason?
Yes, if nothing interests you any more, you think you might as well die. I was recently in that situation again. But then someone came over and we talked and I was outside again. Things are difficult and then very easy again. Andy Warhol said, when I'm bored I watch TV and that always pulls me out of it. It's the same with me. I always find a good movie. I'm a big movie fan.
It's interesting you say that. Because in your drawings and your paintings you've never oriented yourself to film or photography, like, say, Pop Art painters did.
In painting I'm a big opponent of photography. My students started painting from photographs behind my back. Boy was I upset! I but I did actually paint to photographs once or twice myself. I saw what it does to me. The light falling on a cheek or an eye in nature is terrific. But it's banal in a photograph. I need the real body, real air. When I paint I want everything to be as direct as possible.
To be able to work and live as an artist, you had to pay the price of being a loner. How do you feel about that? Where was it most pleasant to be a loner? In Paris, New York, or Vienna? And where was it most unpleasant?
It's perhaps most unpleasant in Vienna. And it was definitely most pleasant in New York. There's simply too much going on there. And the people there don't want to know whether a person is complicated. They make you uncomplicated, whether you want to be or not. I went to America after my mother died. I was really down and America helped me. The fast friendships. But at some point you want to be complicated again.
Today you're one of the few internationally acknowledged and successful 20th century women artists.
I'm not sure about that. I'm not considered an avant-gardist! I'm a big seller. Everyone wants paintings of mine. Yes, I'm popular. But I don't like having so much money. I don't know what to do with it. If someone suddenly shoots a rocket over the house and photographs it, they're an avant-gardist. But I'm not.
But since the 1980s your importance has been undisputed. With Valie Export you represented Austria at the 1978 Venice Biennale. You were a documenta participant in 1982 and 1997. In 1993 you showed your work together with young painting positions at Kaspar König's show "Der zerbrochene Spiegel." You've managed to always be able to work artistically. That's a great achievement.
That may be. But now the physical complaints are starting. I have to weigh up exactly what I can and can't do.
You don't look like it, but you've reached an advanced age. Do you feel a certain satisfaction at having coped with all the difficulties you've faced?
No. You're committed to your works. To not leaving them alone. I don't even dare think about what will happen to them. Otherwise I have really noticed that I've grown old. You know, I've never celebrated my birthday. Then you don't notice it. Hans-Ulrich Obrist recently congratulated me on my 90th birthday. But people told me that's not true, you're only 89! But I don't give a hoot. People have such prejudices, they probably think I'm like a dead stone. But in reality you're very lively. Not even your libido stops. Terrible.
The big issue for you know is what to do with your works.
Yes. And everyone is constantly giving you advice. I once wanted to have my own museum. But I gave up on the idea. Kaspar König advised against it. He said I should sell everything. I don't know. I can start a foundation a hundred times, that won't help me in Austria, no one keeps to the contract. Those are problems I have to face, and then I suddenly have to deal with four exhibitions. Last summer I had a show at the Serpentine Gallery. Now my works are in Cincinnati, at the Contemporary Arts Center, until January and then they're coming to Vienna, because my next exhibition there starts in February. And the Museum Ludwig in Cologne is showing a retrospective of my drawings.
But that truly shows your importance in contemporary art, you can't deny it.
Yes. But after the war I was the first person to draw a black line on a white canvas. And when I exhibit it today, it looks very natural. But it wasn't at the time. An avant-gardist discovered late isn't an avant-gardist. That makes me sad. In hindsight it can't be appreciated how advanced my work was. Nevertheless, I still want to do something new, even if it's something very small. And I also want to shoot a rocket over a house!